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FIRST-PERSON: Robin Williams’ suicide — cautionary comments

WILSON, N.C. (BP) — When news broke that legendary comedian and actor Robin Williams had died of an apparent suicide, people were saddened that someone who had brought so much joy to the lives of others had taken his own life. Immediately some began to speculate about his ongoing battle with alcohol addiction and depression as the cause of his desperate act. Others began to comfort themselves with the thought that Williams was now at peace from such battles. And a few observed that suicide is the ultimate selfish act.

There is little doubt that suicide is a fierce goodbye. It is a final and ultimate way an individual seeks to end their suffering and struggle.

When something like this happens — whether to a celebrity or a fellow church member — plenty of Christians are all too ready to comment. The most prominent reactions I have observed from Christians seem either to say that the individual is now at peace or to say something about the unpardonable sin.

Obviously, these two reactions are polar opposites yet both come from Christians. So, what should we make of news like this?

First, we need to be cautious about making absolute pronouncements about a specific individual’s eternal destiny. Frankly, we are not in a position to know such a thing with certainty.

If we pronounce that someone has committed “the unpardonable sin,” we need to know that Jesus mentions this sin in parallel passages in Matthew 12 and Mark 3. In those contexts, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were accusing him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. They were, in fact, attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. Jesus described their words as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” While scholars may debate exactly what Jesus meant by this, we can be certain that He was not referring to suicide.

Second, it is not consistent with a Christian worldview or biblical truth to suggest that someone who has taken their own life “is no longer suffering.” Frankly, we do not know that.

Indeed, the Bible teaches that only those who are in a relationship with Christ are in a place of joy after their death. All others are in a place of torment. But, because we do not know -– with certainty –- the nature of a specific individual’s relationship with Christ, it is neither helpful nor accurate to make statements about who is or who is not suffering any longer. For the person who dies apart from Christ, the tragic reality is that their suffering has just begun.

Third, I have occasionally seen Christians insinuate that suicide is not possible for a true follower of Christ. Such a view denies the reality of our fallen nature, the power of sin and the devastating effect of mental illness.

Christ is our deliverer, no doubt. But that deliverance is not complete and total until we are in His presence. The battle with depression and mental illness is not unlike any other human struggles. The enemy attacks us at our weakest and most vulnerable spot, and occasionally the battle with mental illness and depression is lost. Sadly, sometimes that loss is final.

Finally, some Christians believe that suicide is the ultimate selfish act, and it may be.

But, saying so is not very helpful to the family who are left to grieve the loss of their loved one. In fact, in a sense, when we say suicide is a selfish act, we are acting as if people exist in a spiritual vacuum. In reality, the opposite is true. People who are struggling with the desire to end their life are in a spiritual battle.

Jesus said that the devil has come to “steal, kill and destroy.” While the individual is responsible for choices he or she makes, let us not fall into the trap of acting as if we do not have an enemy who is seeking to destroy as many lives as he can. When a person commits suicide, it is the ultimate win for the enemy. He has successfully duped another person into believing that his way of death and destruction is best.

When Robin Williams took his own life, the enemy rejoiced and a nation mourned. As Christians, let us be gracious before a watching (and hurting) world. Let us not make bold pronouncements about suffering. Let us not make sweeping generalizations about suicide.

Let us be clear that sadness and sorrow at the loss of one made in the image of God is right. Let us be clear that mourning and grieving the loss of a husband and father is right.

And let us be clear that, except for the grace of God, there go I.
Rob Pochek is senior pastor of Raleigh Road Baptist Church in Wilson, N.C. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Rob Pochek